Magic moments between rain delays mark early Wimbledon action

The ``Big W,'' as players call the Wimbledon tennis tournament, is battling hard against the inconstant English weather - and just about winning. It's a case of magic moments between the hours of rain.

There was Boris Becker suddenly switching hands to flick a left-handed winner over the net and out of the reach of the big Czech newcomer, Karel Novacek, at the end of a splendid rally. The 19-year-old defending champion from West Germany, playing with equal confidence and power, won his first-round match, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.

There was Stefan Edberg beating fellow Swede Stefan Eriksson, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, the first such winner for 40 years.

There was the arrival of a new potential English star - 6 ft. 5 in. Chris Bailey. Last year he got to the quarterfinals of the junior tournament. This year he just made it into the second round of the main event with the narrowest of wins over Gary Donnelly of the United States, 3-6, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6.

In their first-round matches Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, and Steffi Graf won in commanding fashion, the first two losing only one game apiece and Graf two.

Hana Mandlikova has withdrawn from the tournament with a foot injury. This has necessitated changes in the draw for some of the seeds in the women's section. Helena Sukova now finds herself in the same half as Graf. Chris Evert is in Navratilova's half.

At Eastbourne in the warm-up tournament Sukova had beaten Navratilova, and now there's the prospect of another clash in the final here. Of course one can never tell, but it seems more likely that the finalists will be Navratilova, seeking an unprecedented sixth straight women's title, and Graf, the 18-year-old West German star who upset her in the French Open.

Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, who was ranked No. 1 in the world going into the tournament, did not look totally assured during his first-round match against Christian Saceanu from Romania. Saceanu, who is big and strong, is now coached by Becker's former tutor, G"unther Bosch. He took the second set, 6-3, before Lendl regained his touch to eventually triumph in four sets, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. This was the toughest match any of the men's seeds had in the early going.

American Tim Mayotte appeared especially confident as he demolished France's Jean Fleurian, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.

Others who looked strong were Henri Leconte of France, his compatriot Yannick Noah (sporting a dreadlock hairdo), Mats Wilander of Sweden, and Miroslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia.

Jimmy Connors beat fellow American Marty Davis, 6-1, 7-6, 7-6. Some people wonder why Jimmy still bothers, since he is unlikely to reach the final yet again. Talking after the match, he gave the answer. ``I like the game,'' he said. ``It keeps me healthy, wealthy, and wise.''

For once the British have had something to cheer about. Not only did they see the arrival center-stage of Chris Bailey, but all but one of the Brits won their first-round matches in the men's singles.

Jeremy Bates beat Peter Fleming, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6, and you can't lose in straight sets any closer than that. Stephen Shaw beat Todd Witsken of the US, a player ranked 130 places ahead of him in the world, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. Andrew Castle won against Andrei Olkhovsky of the Soviet Union, 7-6, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.

In the women's section, Jo Durie recovered much of her old bite - she was once ranked No. 5 - in defeating Molly van Norstrand 6-2, 6-0. And Lisa Gold beat Cammy McGregor of the US, 6-3, 6-2.

The unanswered question is how much effect the weather is having on the play.

The first day's action was washed out entirely. The second day's was shortened. The third, when the sun actually came out, had to be lengthened, and play went on from morning to night, eventually finishing just after 9 o'clock. Then on Thursday, intermittent rain again caused delays.

Somewhat naturally the crowds are smaller. On the first day there were long lines of people queuing for admission in spite of the rain. But on the second there were no queues at all. I saw a disconsolate trader with two arms full of folding umbrellas looking hopefully up the steep hill that leads down to the courts from the town for the customers who didn't come.

But on the third day the roads were blocked with cars for hours on end and the long lines formed once more outside the turnstiles. There has been talk of putting the tournament forward one week in the future. But the weathermen laugh. You just can't tell.

One has to go back to 1927 to recall the wettest meeting ever, when the program was extended to the third Tuesday. Whatever happens, in the end this first and last of the world's great grass court competitions usually wins.

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